Written By: Lili Jacobs, FoodCorps Service Member with UCCE Central Sierra
I want to tell you a story about bees. You should know that this story also has to do with a particularly fantastic set of tutus.
So I work at a high school. Together with high school students, we manage a farm that’s roughly two acres, located atop a steep hill above the school, unseen and sometimes unknown by the rest of the student body (don’t worry, we’re working on this). The students and I…we’re kind of like The Island of Misfit Toys. I get a mixture of students ranging from those that are just trying to get out of class, kids who come from families and histories deeply ingrained in food production and have finally found a place where they and their cowboy hats and boots have a sense of belonging and ownership, kids who identify with their studenthood and are just trying things out and trying to succeed, and of course, the ones who are truly too cool for school but haven’t totally realized their brilliance because of high-school confusion. Then there’s me, not quite old enough to be revered (or detested) as a teacher, and not quite young enough to be a total pal with these kids…some call me a “mentor”.
The thing you should really know above all else is that, unbeknownst to them, high schoolers run the world. They’ve got us all on our toes: no matter how well you’ve planned a lesson, or built a relationship, the tone of the day is in their hands. Are they feeling angsty today? Are they feeling like you’re the bee’s knees? Are they open to hearing all you have to say? You can’t be too hard on them. We’ve all been there, and felt that chemical imbalance we call ‘growing’ in our hormones. Most of us feel it, learn from it, and run away fast. But now here I am: back again, in the midst of the high school craze, hoping to manage this farm, and ignite even a spark of interest to penetrate their cozy cool jackets.
At this point in my service, I know my students very well. However, this story takes place at the very beginning of my time here, when often I had literally no idea what group of students would find their ways up the hill to the farm. The day this story takes place, I’d arranged for an expert on bees from the community, The Bee Guy, to come to the farm, check on our bee-hive, and talk to some kids about bees and how cool they are. I’m stoked. (I’ve come to learn that it turns out that I’m a garden nerd. This knowledge is ascertained from the frequent blank stares I get from some kids when I’m telling them about something I think is cool in the garden. I’m talking chin down, open mouth, upward looking eyes, one eyebrow raised, sort of deal). Anyway, the Bee Guy arrives, and starts setting up. We make small talk until the kids arrive.
Enter kiddos. (Why do all garden educators call kids kiddos?). They summit the hill, a scene unlike any I’d seen thus far, a cloud of pink. It’s spirit week this week, the theme of the day “pink,” and these girls have gone all out. I’m telling you, not only are their clothes pink, but their shoelaces are pink, their nails are pink, they’ve got pink hair dye, and most importantly, voluptuous pink tutus. These girls are cool. They’re laughing to each other, slowly mellowing out as they come nearer to us, testing out what sorts of authority figures the Bee Guy and I are. We introduce ourselves, and today’s topic, and all semblance of amiability vanishes from the girls’ faces, any smiles left over downturned into a grimace.
“BEEEES?!!!” No way. “I hate bees. They’re scary.”
The Bee Guy and I carry on, figuring out as we go how to create a safe and welcoming environment for these girls to test their limits, and open themselves to the idea that today, this is what we’re doing. So the Bee Guy pulls out these full body bee suits from his truck.
“Well, if you’re not going to look at the bees, at least you can try on these cool suits!”
The girls look at each other, checking to see if this is ok. They shrug, mumble a little and start climbing into the bee suits. They pull on the elbow-length gloves, then the hat, one step in then the other, zip up….tuck in the tutus. What was once a flurry of pink is now a slew of fluffy pillsbury dough boys.
Step one of educator success complete. Now how to get them to engage with the lesson?
The Bee Guy pulls out a rack from inside the beebox, points out some elements, and then invites them to follow him over to the hive. This time he steps up to the hive, bees buzzing all around, and reaches in to pull out a rack, heavy with wax and honey. The girls huddle together, yards away from the Bee Guy as he talks about what he’s doing. The Bee Guy acts like this isn’t weird in any way and keeps talking.
“Here’s how you identify a queen and the drones, here’s how you find an egg and sometimes you may even see larvae.”
But here’s where the teaching skills come to play. He looks up finally at the girls.
“Now can any of you find any of these things I just mentioned? Come over, I want you to point them out to me.”
Slowly one girl inches forward, followed by the other, understanding their power in numbers. She points to something on the rack. Who knows if she even points to the correct spot on the tray, but the point is, she made the distance, and she had it in her all along.
The Bee Guy wraps up his lesson, and thanks the girls for helping him with the bees. The girls disassemble their bee suits, pink fluff emerging again. As they do so, they ask him when he’ll come back, thank him, and head back down the hill. As they do, one girl turns to the other.
“You know, that was kind of cool.”
These are the moments I live for as a garden educator. The moments when the students find and let show that side of themselves that was there all along, but buried beneath their perceived need to fit in with the crowd. The moment when they reach out to touch the bee rack, or eat the vegetable, or plant the seed, and connect with each other and get excited about the natural world buzzing around them. And it goes both ways. It is equally tickling to be a part of this process for myself and I imagine any other garden educator. What an honor it is to be a part of the promotion of kids’ imagination and excitement, to engage in their taking ownership of their own learning process, and to watch them become empowered.
About Lili: Lili Jacobs is a first year Service Member with UCCE Central Sierra, serves at Calaveras High School, and can be reached by emailing her at email@example.com.
The University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) is a bridge between local issues and the research expertise of the University of California. The Central Sierra Cooperative Extension serves Amador, Calaveras, Tuolumne and El Dorado counties.